In celebration of the Ikeda Center’s 30th anniversary year, each Dialogue Nights of 2023 is being devoted to a key concept from our founding lecture, “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-first Century Civilization,” delivered by Daisaku Ikeda at the Harvard-Yenching Institute on September 24, 1993. After exploring “the greater self” at the first Dialogue Nights of the year, the March 31 edition took up the essential Buddhist theme of interdependence.
During her welcoming remarks, the Center’s Preandra Noel invited the 40 Boston-area university students and young professionals in attendance to engage in open-hearted dialogue on the topic of “Awakening to our Interdependence: How Are We Connected to the World Around Us?” Explaining how Mr. Ikeda’s life and work inspired Dialogue Nights, she said that the main reason for launching the series six years ago was to be a manifestation of “his undying commitment” to dialogue and “his strong belief in our potential as youth to be agents of change in our local communities.” With that, she offered the hope that “throughout the night you can experience his firm conviction and faith in the transformative power of dialogue for yourself, and really feel his heart, which is infused in everything that we do.”
A Weeklong Experiment in Interdependence
For the icebreaker activity, participants paired up and responded to five “interdependence prompts,” which included questions such as: How am I here? How do others depend on me? Who do I live with? After 15 minutes of discussion, Preandra introduced of two members of the Ikeda Center youth committee, Cameron (Cam) Morose and Giulia Pellizzato, who would be presenting and dialoguing on findings from a weeklong experiment in interdependence they recently engaged in. For the experiment, every morning each would read an Ikeda quote on interdependence. Then, that evening, said Cam, they would reflect together on any “takeaways and realizations on interdependence that we had.” Giulia added: “Don’t you want to try for yourself? I highly recommend it!”
Cam opened the discussion by sharing some of his highlights from the week, which, he said, “if I were to boil it all down” would be that “my mood and wellbeing are profoundly impacted by the quality of interactions that I have with other people.” To illustrate, he shared how after experiencing a very serious and intense work meeting he had a spontaneous phone call with a friend where they “shared some laughs” and “were able to really connect.” The result? He instantly felt “lighter, energized, refreshed.” This led to the realization that “I only smile and laugh when I’m engaging with another person.” This never happens, say, when grocery shopping alone, he added. Relatedly, Cam said that one of his greatest joys is being able to contribute to the wellbeing of others.
Giulia said she found herself “reflecting every day on how I was influenced by others and how I was influencing others.” Her “moments of happiness and gratitude and appreciation multiplied just by pausing to appreciate how this person changed my day today, or how I can go into this day and I can do something nice for someone.” In short, what she didn’t expect to learn, but did, was that awareness of “interdependency actually transforms my perceptions and my narratives.” As an example, she shared how she was able to flip the narrative when she stopped thinking about how a comment of her father’s had hurt her, considering instead what feelings were motivating him. Ultimately, she said, it’s a matter of personal “agency” to spend less time thinking about how others impact you and more time asking, “Okay, how can I support the people that I’m meeting, and the forms of life I am meeting, today.”
To conclude their discussion, Giulia and Cam reflected on how to cultivate the openness that is essential to experiencing the healing power of interdependence. They both agreed the sense of appreciation that Giulia spoke of is a key act in that pursuit.
Findings From the Small Group Dialogues
The small group dialogue segment of the evening focused on two prompts: (1) What stood out to you from Giulia and Cam’s reflections on interdependence?, and (2) Can you share an example where you recognized that your life was interdependent with others? How did this recognition change the way you interact with others? After 20 minutes of discussion, Preandra welcomed everyone back by asking a volunteer to read this quote from Mr. Ikeda’s 1991 lecture at Harvard University called “The Age of Soft Power”:
All things are linked in an intricate web of causation and connection, and nothing, whether in the realm of human affairs or natural phenomena, can exist or occur solely of its own accord… . More than objective awareness, we must achieve a state of compassion transcending distinctions between self and other. We need to feel the compassionate energy that beats within the depths of all people’s subjective lives where the individual and the universal are merged.
With this statement in mind, Preandra then asked participants to share thoughts with the whole group based on the following question: Why do you think seeing the connections to others and the world around us is important in the context of our society and the future of our world? She also invited them to share any other “pearls of wisdom” that they may have encountered or thought of over the course of the evening. A few core themes from the insights of the dozen participants who shared their thoughts with the group.
Many of the comments built on the guiding question, directly investigating the various aspects and attributes of our connections with others. The first aspect discussed was how our reliance technology has made us “overly individualized,” with our connections with others being rather “two-dimensional” and lacking in emotion. Closely related, was another participant’s concern that our connections have become overly “transactional.” Among the suggested remedies: Better awareness of our deeper “web of connection”; closer attention to our connections that already exist; and the employment of intentionality to transform adversarial connections into ones of benefit or value.
Two participants raised complementary points about having reasonable expectations for the diverse relationships in our web of interdependence. As one participant noted, it’s healthy to get past an all or nothing mindset where our options are limited to having a “really deep friendship” or being isolated and alone. It helps our overall health to pay attention to smaller, more subtle forms of connection. This observation resonated with a participant who grew up in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, where many relationships in life have clear boundaries, for example, between a teacher and student. While these boundaries aren’t necessarily fixed or definitive, there can be value in “putting a label” on a relationship. It can help us to grow and find our path in life.
Finally, participants addressed the question of the meaning and role of dependency in our lives, a question so often impacted by the social messages we are surrounded by, including that we must always be “strong” and “independent” and that “depending on anyone is bad.” These messages are so pervasive said one participant, “when I walked in [tonight], I felt that interdependence had a negative connotation to it.” Another added that “I met a guy” but kept “freaking out” over “becoming codependent,” fearing not only that she would get hurt but that she would hurt him. Fortunately, she said, he was patient and understanding and they are still together.
Responding to these concerns about dependency, Preandra wrapped up the group dialogue with some insights drawn from her daily life. So often, she said, when we want to talk to someone about our troubles or concerns, we think, “Oh, I don’t want to be a burden. Yet, whenever anyone has come to her like this, she said, “Never once did I think, oh, they wasted my time,” adding that, in truth, “I always learned from it.” For her, “interdependence invites us to really bring all the colors of our life to the people we trust.”
To conclude the evening, the Center’s Program Manager Lillian I led a “takeaway activity” designed to reinforce everyone’s sense of connection. First, though, she offered her sincere appreciation for “all the wisdom being shared” and how the evening’s dialogue has helped her understanding of interdependence become a little less “theoretical” and more grounded in what it means for her “day-to-day interactions.” Lillian then introduced the concluding activity. In it, participants linked arms one-after-the-other as each found connection with a statement of identity or of preferences—things as simple as being a vegetarian or an only child—that each person made as they joined the chain. By the end, the group was linked together in a circle.
Finally, Lillian shared another quote from Mr. Ikeda’s 1993 lecture. “No one exists in isolation,” he stated. “Each individual existence functions to bring into being the environment, which in turn sustains all other existences, all things [are] mutually supportive and related.” In that spirit, she voiced her hope that anytime someone in our lives is “isolated,” we will “really reach out and make a connection to help each of us awaken to our interdependence, just as we did tonight.”